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The History of Kent

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The Courtenay Uprising

In the early morning of 31st May 1838 near Dunkirk, John Tom masquerading as Sir William Courtenay murdered a village constable who had been sent to arrest him. Later that day, he led a band of followers into a fight with the military at Bosenden Wood, in which eleven more lives were lost, including his own.

These singular but mischievous riots occurred on Thursday, the 31st of May 1838, at a place called Bossenden Wood, about five miles from the ancient city of Canterbury, and were the result of the pranks of a madman who had assumed the title of Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta, and whose insane spirit communicated itself to the rustics, and produced calamitous consequences. The infatuation with which this insane impostor was followed, and even worshipped, by the peasantry of the district into which he intruded himself, affords a striking and melancholy proof of the magic powers of fanaticism. But while one is not surprised that, among the lower orders, he should find persons incapable of resisting his wily and specious arguments and the impudent falsehood of his assertions, it cannot but be the subject of the greatest astonishment that he should have procured the countenance, during a very considerable period, of individuals of superior rank and education in the county.

The best mode of introducing this extraordinary event will be by detailing succinctly the circumstances of the early life of the supposed Sir William Courtenay.

The real name of this pretender was John Nichols Thom, and he was the son of a small farmer and maltster at St Columb in Cornwall. While yet a lad, he procured employment in the establishment of Messrs Plumer and Turner, wine-merchants of Truro, as cellarman, but after five years’ service, the firm was broken up and the business ceased. Thom now commenced trading on his own account, as a wine-merchant, maltster and hop-dealer, and for three or four years he carried on his trade with great apparent respectability. At the end of that time, his premises and stock were consumed by an accidental fire, and he recovered from an Insurance office, for the losses which he alleged he had sustained by this event, the sum of 3000L., being a much larger amount than many judged him to be entitled to. Subsequently he rebuilt his house and continued his trade, and, after about two years more, he made a considerable sum of money by a successful venture in malt which he disposed of in Liverpool. For two years after this event he was lost sight of by his friends, and it was presumed that he was out of England, and the first intimation, which was received of his return, was his declaring himself a candidate to represent the city of Canterbury in Parliament, under the name of Sir William Courtenay, in the month of December 1832.

He was found to have taken up his residence at the Rose Hotel, Canterbury, and the splendour of his dress, and the eccentricity of his manners, soon gained for him many admirers, even among the respectable inhabitants of the town. During his canvass, he increased the number of his friends, and his success in procuring supporters was most extraordinary. His effort, however, was not fortunate. His opponent candidates were the Hon R. Watson and Lord Fordwich, the former of whom obtained 832 votes and the latter 802, while Courtenay polled 375. This attempt gained him many friends, and great popularity among the lower orders. His persuasive language was exceedingly useful to him, but the peculiarity of his dress, combined with the absurdity of many of his protestations, induced a belief among some of those to whom he procured introduction that he was insane.

After his defeat, he did not confine his proceedings to Canterbury alone, but passed through most of the towns in Kent, declaiming against the poor laws, the revenue laws, and other portions of the statutes of the realm which are usually considered, by the poor, to be obnoxious to their interests. By his speeches, he obtained much eclat, but his exertions in favour of some smugglers led him into a scrape, from which he was likely to have suffered serious consequences. An action took place near the Goodwin Sands in the month of July 1833 between the revenue cruiser Lively and the Admiral Hood smuggler, and, in the course of the flight of the latter vessel and her exertions to escape from the Lively, her crew were observed to throw a great number of tubs overboard, which, on their being picked up, proved to contain spirit. The Admiral Hood was captured, but no contraband goods were found on board, and, on the men being taken into custody, Courtenay presented himself as a witness before the magistrates. He swore positively that he had seen the whole of the action and that no tubs had been thrown from the Admiral Hood. He further stated, that he had observed those which had been picked up by the revenue men floating in the sea all day. This was so diametrically opposed to the truth, that a prosecution for perjury was determined on, and he was indicted at the Maidstone Assizes on the 25th of July 1833. A verdict of conviction followed, and Mr. Justice Park, the presiding judge, passed a sentence of imprisonment, to be followed by seven years’ transportation. The difficulty in which he was placed, however, having reached the knowledge of his friends in Cornwall, they made representations to the Home Secretary that he was insane, and, after having suffered four years’ confinement in a lunatic asylum at Barming Heath, he was at length liberated, on bail being given for his future, good behaviour.

He now took up his abode at the residence of Mr. Francis, a gentleman of fortune, of Fairbrook near Boughton in the neighbourhood of Canterbury, and speedily resumed his wild efforts to gain popularity for himself. His dress now was similar to that which he had worn before his incarceration, and the following sketch of his personal appearance, extracted from the romance of Rookwood by Mr. Ainsworth, well describes him. ‘A magnificent coal-black beard decorated the chin of this worthy, but this was not all his costume was in perfect keeping with his beard, and consisted of a very theatrical-looking tunic, upon the breast of which was embroidered in golden wire the Maltese Cross; while on his shoulders were thrown the ample folds of a cloak of Tyrian hue. To his side was girt a long and doughty sword, which he termed, in his knightly phrase, Excalibur; and upon his profuse hair rested a hat as broad in the brim as a Spanish sombrero. Exaggerated as this description may appear, we can assure our readers that it is not overdrawn.’

This is reproduced from ‘Thomas Mears and Others. The Canterbury Rioters 31st May 1838’ with kind permission of Exclassics.

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